A History of Nas and Kanye West’s Musical Relationship
It was one of those ideas too ill to be true: Nas, one of hip-hop's most brilliant voices, joining forces with the musical mastermind that is Kanye West for a full project. Imagine that. In a few hours, you won't have to.
Nas' 11th solo studio album, titled Nasir, is dropping on Friday (June 15), the fourth in a five-week stretch of Kanye-piloted projects that also includes releases from Pusha-T, Kid Cudi and Teyana Taylor. It'll be the Queens legend's first studio album since 2012's Grammy-nominated Life Is Good. And his first that will be produced entirely by one person (2010's Distant Relatives featured production solely by co-star Damian Marley and his brother, Stephen Marley). But Kanye is not the first beatsmith of which fans have demanded a full-length collaborative project with Nas.
Back in 2006, Nas and DJ Premier—who featured prominently on Illmatic—teased the idea of a collaborative album between the two musical geniuses when they both appeared on the cover of XXL's now-defunct sister publication, Scratch. “Nas approached me about doing a whole album for him," Preemo said in the interview. "I said, ‘I’m down, just holla at me when you’re ready’... I really hope we can get it crackin’.”
Premier and Nas unfortunately did not get it crackin'—the producer hasn't contributed to a Nas album since 2001's Stillmatic—but now Kanye West is stepping up. How did these two artists get here? Their history includes uncredited (and unreleased) music, one of hip-hop's greatest rivalries, former President Barack Obama and French Montana. As you prepare to listen to Nas' new LP, XXL takes a trip down memory lane to revisit his two-decade long history with Mr. West.
Kanye West's music first began gaining exposure thanks to the mentorship of producer Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, who helped the Chicago beatmaker place his instrumentals around the turn of the millennium. In a session with Nas circa 1998, D-Dot played a soulful, Eddie Kendricks-sampling beat by Yeezy (who didn’t attend) that would eventually become The Lost Tapes classic “Poppa Was a Playa.” Unfortunately for Kanye, his production credit did not appear in the liner notes for the 2002 compilation due to—as Angelettie told Mass Appeal—a miscommunication with the label.
By 2001, Kanye West was becoming a consistent beatmaker within Roc-A-Fella, having worked on Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia and Beanie Sigel’s The Truth and The Reason albums. Kanye’s presence is hugely felt on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, as he produced five songs, one of which being the monumental Nas diss track “Takeover.” While Ye’s vocals don’t appear on the song, he addressed his role in the song’s creation one year later, on Hov’s “The Bounce”: “You did ‘Takeover,’ do you got beef with Nas?/I did take over the game, brought back the soul.”
Clearly Kanye didn’t have beef with Nas. His 2005 sophomore album Late Registration featured God’s Son on the standout deep cut “We Major”—a curious collaboration given Yeezy’s ties to Jay-Z, who was at the time Kanye’s label boss and Nas’ antagonist. Still, Hov signed off on the record, which became Kanye and Nas’ first rapped collaboration.
"'We Major' is like Jay's favorite song on the album," Kanye told MTV in 2005. "When something is so good, you can't deny it... When you hear the horns on 'We Major,' and you hear the chorus come in, and Nas—in original form Nas, Nas like that—that can sometimes warm somebody's heart."
One year later, Kanye returned the favor. Nas—who had squashed his beef with Jay by then—scooped up two instrumentals from Mr. West for his Hip-Hop Is Dead album: “Let There Be Light,” and “Still Dreaming.” Kanye lays the hook and opening verse for the latter track, while his cousin, singer Tony Williams, appears on the former. "I always wanted to work with Kanye West," Nas told Pitchfork in 2006.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of it’s Air Force 1 sneaker, Nike commissioned Kanye West, KRS-One, Nas and Rick Rubin to create a song paying tribute to the iconic kicks. That track became “Better Than I've Ever Been,” a song that far exceeds the expectations of sponsored content (it even nabbed a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Collaboration). On the song, Kanye expresses his admiration for his Queensbridge collaborator, rapping: “What do it take to be a legend like Nas is?” DJ Premier later remixed the track, swapping in a new beat and adding a verse from Rakim. All four rappers appeared in the song's video.
After Nas' 2006 album Hip-Hop Is Dead dropped, there was much conversation about the state of the artform. And two years later, Esco made an about-face on his shocking claim. "I think Kanye West saved rap," Nas told Complex, in response to a report that Kanye called him the greatest rapper of all-time. (Of all-time!)
Nas revisited the claim in a 2014 conversation with Steve Stoute and Ben Horowitz at SXSW. "I think his mission no longer is to save hip-hop,” he said. “I think he’s on an artistic mission. He wants to express himself."
DJ 31 Degreez’s Home Of The Giants mixtape hit the internet in early 2009, featuring a soulful Nas cut called “The World.” The song clocks in at under three minutes and is reportedly a Kanye-produced leak from the Hip-Hop Is Dead sessions. It features Nas delivering a narrative rhyme while a vocal chop from Leroy Hutson’s “Don't It Make You Feel Good” fades in and out for the hook.
In the wake of the release of Distant Relatives, Nas' Afrocentric collaborative album with Damian Marley, word began to spread that Nas and Kanye could be working on a project of their own. In July 2010, he told Tim Westwood that Kanye West and RZA were interested in producing the lion's share of his next album, which he called one of his most important works.
"Kanye hit me up saying ‘I want to do the album.’ And RZA," Nas said. "Those dudes inspire me to go in there and do what I’m supposed to do at this day and age… I gotta deliver.”
The following month, RZA recalled a similar story, in which the Wu-Tang Clan leader was playing beats for a group of people that included Nas and Pusha-T. "Nas was like, ‘Damn, yo, what the fuck are you doing with all this music? We should do some shit together,’" RZA remembered. "He said maybe me and Kanye could come together and produce [his] album."
Of course, Nas' next project would become his Grammy-nominated renaissance work, 2012's Life Is Good. That project did not include any contributions from Kanye West or RZA.
Nas and Kanye linked up once again in 2016, as rap’s original Esco dropped a verse for French Montana’s “Figure It Out,” while Kanye chips in for the hook. All three artists appear in the music video.
In 2016, Kanye hinted at some upcoming collaborations with Nas—the fruit of an alleged vow to a former U.S. president. "I promised Obama Ima do beats on NAS’ next album," he tweeted.
A bit of bright news emerged in the midst of one of Kanye West's polarizing April 2018 Twitter rants: The producer announced that he would be producing Nas' 11th solo studio album, and even shared the release date.
Days before the scheduled June 15 release, Kanye tweeted an image of the expected tracklist, written on a dry erase board.
The album was no hoax. Nasir features seven tracks that swap Nas' usual production circle (Salaam Remi, L.E.S.) with Kanye West and his musical cabinet. Yeezy also drops vocals on two tracks: the Slick Rick-sampling "Cops Shot the Kid" and "Everything" with The-Dream. Kanye and Nas hosted the star-studded listening party, held in Nas' Queensbridge hometown. Major, indeed.